Do the scientific data on fracking damage matter to policy makers?
Discussion on the health and environmental damage of fracking, initiated by scientists, journalists, and activists, is moving fast. Will it matter? It did in New York state, where scientists and activists working together convinced the governor to ban fracking. Scientists have not yet been as effective in Oklahoma in getting the message out about the dangers of fracking, and fracking continues although it has been linked to recent earthquakes. (See update at the end of this post.)
You wouldn’t think fracking was a problem from today’s New York Times. Energy and business correspondent Clifford Krauss’s article, “New Balance of Power,” gives cursory mention of the environment in his fracking-happy discussion.
The US is now responsible for 10% of global production of oil, and oil from the fracking of US shale fields since 2008 accounts for roughly half of the world’s oil production growth. The US is overtaking the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in oil production, weakening OPEC’s control (the goal of most US energy businesses and politicians) of the price of oil. But rather than reduce oil outout to keep demand (and price) high, OPEC has maintain production in order to retain market share- and the price of oil and gas has plummeted. Krauss sees the marginalization of OPEC and the lowered oil and gas prices as excellent outcomes. He also seems quite delighted that oil-producing “foreign foes” like Venezuela and Russia have been weakened by the drop in oil prices.
What about the environment?
Oh, well, there is some distant discussion of the environment. Krauss mentions that environmentalists believe the low oil and gas prices will drive consumption up. He says that “President Obama has applauded the drop in gasoline prices, but he still straddles the interests of environmentalists with those of the oil companies when it comes to hot-button issues like offshore drilling and expanding exports of United States oil and natural gas.”
And Krauss does say that hydraulic fracking is “still considered risky by many environmentalists because of the escape of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere during exploration, production and transport, along with potential seepage of toxic fluids into water supplies.”
But this completely misrepresents the dangers of fracking. He writes off damage to people and to the fracking areas as an example of the “interests of environmentalists.” He alludes to “potential” seepage of toxic fluids. He says nothing about the many scientific studies that have linked health and environmental damage to the technique of fracking. The article is an excellent description of what activists and scientists are facing when the health and environmental issues of oil and gas production are pitted against business and political issues.
Hydraulic fracking is the process of pumping large amounts of water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure into a well and surrounding rock formations to extract deep reserves of gas or oil. Its use increased in use in 2003, and more so after 2004 (when the FDA found that fracking did not harm underwater drinking water and 2005 (when fracking was exempted from the Safe Water Drinking Act by the Bush Administration).
It is a messy, dirty process, and problems just keep coming.
Problems such as earthquakes, fires, contaminated water, and radon generation. Problems scientists have been documenting for years.
Scientists from Johns Hopkins recently found that fracking may cause the release of radon. Uranium occurs naturally in soil and bedrock and decays to radium-226, which then decays to radon, an inert, odorless, and carcinogenic gas. It is the 2nd leading cause of lung cancer worldwide. Indoor radon levels in Pennsylvania were correlated with fracking, as well as with well water (and with weather and a rural versus a town location).
NBC news reported flammable tap water in homes located near fracking sites in Portage County, Ohio. The injection sites themselves are dirty and dangerous. A few days ago, a fracking waste-water injection site in Greeley, Colorado exploded in flames, not far from the site of an injection well that had been linked to earthquakes in 2014. The stored oil and gas wastewater that is used for injection contained hydrocarbons that can vaporize and it is thought that a lightening strike caused the the explosion. On and on, in scientific publications and on the media, the problems of fracking are described and decried.
But it is the earthquakes associated with fracking that perhaps have been best documented and are drawing the most attention from the scientific and environmental world.
In November, 2011, several earthquakes- including one of 5.7 magnitude- struck Prague, Oklahoma, destroying more than a dozen homes. The quakes were located near wells where fracking has been ongoing for 20 years.
The mainstream press reported on studies showing that a 2011 earthquake in central Oklahoma was linked to fracking. One of these was a March, 2013 paper in Geology by scientists at the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University, and the United States Geological Study (USGA), examined the correlation between wastewater injection and the 5.7 magnitude earthquake.
A more recent article in the NY Times, online titled as “As Quakes Rattle Oklahoma, Fingers point to Oil and Gas Industry,” gives a bleak and excellent description of the interplay between scientists, citizens, the oil industry, and local politicians.
It mentions some to the earthquakes seen associated with fracking in other states, such as Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Kansas. Nowhere though, have the earthquakes approached the number and scope of Oklahoma’s, and scientists believe this is because Oklahoma’s main waster disposal site is a bed of porous limestone thousands of feet underground that lies close to the hard and stressed rock that contains faults. The soaked limestone expands and gets heavier, and impacts these faults directly or indirectly, by nearby pressure.
Scientists are speaking out in Oklahoma and elsewhere, but many are unable to hear or deal with the implications of the dangers of fracking. The oil and gas wells bring money to Oklahoma, to corporate owners but also royalties to farmers and landholders and taxes to the state. The oil and gas industry gives millions to Oklahoma universities, a situation that may be an incredible conflict of interest for academic scientists and administrators. Another conflict of interest is that the oil and gas industries are major political contributors to Oklahoma legislators, and to all three elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees many regulatory aspects of fracking. It is estimated that 1 out of 5 jobs in Oklahoma are dependent on the oil and gas industry. It is not a good atmosphere in which to examine and act on data.
Governor Mary Fallin has named a council to “exchange information” about the tremors.
Activists have been working in Oklahoma to point out the dangers of fracking, but Oklahoma law enforcement has come down hard. In a widely publicized case, activists protested fracking at Devon Energy headquarters in Oklahoma City, and two were charged for enacting a terrorism hoax after hanging two banners with glitter (That’s right! Could have been bioterrorism!) and two were arrested for trespassing.
The state of New York is listening a bit better.
New York state and Governor Cuomo’s administrations’s decision to ban fracking at the end of 2014 are a blueprint for scientists and activists to modify for their own towns and areas. New York was the first state with significant natural gas resources to ban fracking.
New York state under Governor Paterson had a virtual ban on fracking for 6 years while the state studied the health effects of fracking that were being brought up again and again. But communities, worried the state would give in to pressure from energy companies, used zoning laws to ban fracking: this was upheld by the Court of appeals in June, 2014.
When the decision to ban fracking was announced, Dr. Howard A Zucker, the acting state health commissioner, not only said his department had found insufficient scientific evidence to affirm the safety of fracking (itself an unusual decision in a business in which health dangers have to be proven before a ban would be issued), but that he would not want his family to live in a community in which fracking was taking place. His words as a scientist and a community member were quoted widely.
But none of the science would have been acted upon without the many members of activist groups who have been researching, educating, and protesting for the past 6 years. Some see this as a bad thing, a dilution of the science. For example, as described in “Fracking Movement Wins as NY Bans Fracking in Popular Resistance, Tom Wilber, who writes Shell Gas Review said, “Science is part of the calculus. But despite what Cuomo would like us to believe, scientists don’t make these kind of decisions. The full equation is Science + politics + policy. Cuomo finally got tired of being hounded on the issue by his political base. The movement in New York against shale gas was relentless and it was focused on him.”
Ecologist and activist Sandra Steingraber, speaking at a victory party after the inauguration of Governor Cuomo talked of the synergy between scientists and activists that was so effective. She described the 400+ peer reviewed scientific articles that documented the danger of fracking, and the citizen activism that brought the data to the public.
“First, you issued invitations to scientists to come into your communities—into your church basements, town halls, middle school gymnasiums, chambers of commerce, and Rotary Clubs. Thus, for a couple years running, some of us PhDs and MDs spent a lot of Friday nights and Sunday afternoons in one small town or another in upstate New York, giving Powerpoint presentations and laying out the data for audiences of common folks and town board members.
“Every church and town hall became a seminar. This cadre of traveling scientists and health professionals included Tony Ingraffea, Bob Howarth, Adam Law, Bill Podulka, Larysa Dyrszka, Kathy Nolan, Mary Menapace, Sheila Buskin, and Yuri Gorby, among many others.
The second way science was disseminated to and by the people was through the public comment process. Do you recall the 30 Days of Fracking “Regs? Remember those days? A few of us laid out the science like a trail of breadcrumbs, and you all followed. In these and other ways, we sent 204,000 well-informed, scientifically grounded comments to Albany. They spoke very loudly.
“Science alone is just a lot of black dots on white mathematical space. Like a musical score that sits on a shelf, it doesn’t become a song until someone picks up the score and sings it. And you sang it! You informed your friends and neighbors about the science and so pushed the needle on public opinion. You changed providence itself.”
Other states are trying to emulate the successful model of the New York State fracking ban. The model must be modified for each state- New York, for example, may not have the shale reserves of other states such as Oklahoma, and resistance by those who profit by the oil and gas industry might be more difficult in more oil-rich states. But it is a useful and inspiring model for scientist citizens.
A list of worldwide bans against fracking, as well as activist tools, can be found at “Keep Tap Water Safe.” Not all countries are as hesitant as the US in acting on the dangers of fracking. France and Bulgaria have banned it, as have Wales and Scotland , and Germany has signed off on a draft law to do so .
Of course, the bottom line is that fracking and conventional extraction methods must be sharply minimized, even if they weren’t immediate dangers. British scientists Christophe McGlade and Paul Elkins recently published paper in Nature early this year that strongly suggested that 1/3 of the world’s oil reserves, and half of its gas reserves (as well as over 80% of the coal) must be left in the ground until 2050 to prevent greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting earth warming of 2 degrees Celsius.
It is vital that scientists who either investigate fracking, see the dangers of it through other’s data, or take part in citizen activism, do not accept the judgement of those who deem activism to be contrary to science. Scientists working as citizens with activists are powerful- and that is why criticism is so passionate.
April 23, 2015
Update April 24, 2015
Yesterday, the USGA released its first comprehensive analysis of the link between oil and gas operations and thousands of earthquakes in the U.S. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/us/us-maps-areas-of-increased-earthquakes-from-human-activity.html?ref=topics ). 17 areas were identified in 9 states, and Oklahoma was determined to be the hardest hit. Interestingly, though fracking itself garners most of the press, it is the injection of water to dispose of the waste from drilling or production that is the greatest contributor to earthquakes.
2 days before the report was released to the public, the Oklahoma state government acknowledged the scientific data saying that wastewater disposal linked to oil and gas drilling was to blame for the hundreds-fold (!) increase in earthquakes there.
Update May 5, 2015
An analysis of drinking water from 3 homes in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, found organic compounds used in shale gas development in wells. The PNAS paper, “Evaluating a groundwater supply contamination incident attributed to Marcellus Shale gas development,” was published on May 4 by scientists from Penn State University, the Leco Corporation, and the Appalachia Hydrogeologic and Environmental Consulting, and used instrumentation not commonly available in commercial labs. This was not an anti-fracking paper: authors suggested that better analysis and management could prevent contamination of aquifers.